Women and work… and Leo Varadkar

Leo Varadkar TD at a Fine Gael press conferenc...
Leo Varadkar TD at a Fine Gael press conference during the 2011 General Election Campaign. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A straw poll of friends and colleagues a recently revealed that many of the women I know are the primary – or the only – breadwinners in their families.

The recession has caused a huge amount of male unemployment in construction and related sectors. Despite that, more women are living in poverty, or at risk of poverty, than men. Those two statements are true, and they’re not mutually exclusive.

In the discussion following this week’s revelations about the personal insolvency guidelines, it was assumed that childcare costs are the sole responsibility of one person in every household; the woman.

Many men take responsibility for childcare, and its cost, but for some reason the Government is ignoring their role in this babymaking business. Perhaps Deputy Michelle Mulherin can fill Minister Leo Varadkar in about the role of fornication in all of it.

The minister told yesterday’s Irish Examiner that women who earn less than the price of childcare would have to give up their jobs, under the banks’ new guidelines.

Women of childbearing age bear the brunt of successive governments’ failure to tackle the inequity of Irish childcare. Across Europe, one-third of single parents live in poverty, and of those single parents, approximately 85 per cent are women.

Childcare costs might be bothering the bank managers of the mortgage-defaulting women Minister Varadkar knows, with their ‘pin money’ jobs and gadabout ‘career girl’ lifestyles.

(Reading his comments, I was sorry he didn’t get the chance to meet legendary advertising executive Jane Maas, a speaker for Network Cork’s International Women’s Day event, who worked in 1960s New York, and saw pregnant colleagues “disappear quietly” before they were fired.)

Childcare costs, though, are even more of an issue to a single mother trying to keep herself at work in order to avoid the social welfare / single mother stigma and to retain those precious PRSI stamps that will entitle her to a contributory pension when she does retire.

Taking some time off to look after children can be a privilege for many women. But the career gap necessitated by having children is a major contributory factor to women’s increased risk of poverty.

However, for many families, Minister Varadkar’s vision is correct – women, or in rare cases men who have children, realise they will be working purely to pay somebody else and decide to remain at home themselves. But it means that when they do go back to work, they are years behind colleagues in pay and experience. That pay gap represents a massive loss of earnings over a person’s career, as well as affecting their pension entitlements.

This does not have to be the natural state of affairs. It is not the state of affairs in many European countries, where childcare is heavily subsidised and parental leave is more generous, for both parents.

Yesterday, Enda Kenny said in the Dáil that “nobody” would be forced to give up their job under the guidelines. However, he failed to follow the problem to its source; the cost of childcare. Perhaps he – and Leo Varadkar – should talk to their cabinet colleague Frances Fitzgerald, who has been talking about reforming childcare for quite a while now.

It would be ironic if mortgage defaults were the reason we finally got a functional, fair, affordable childcare system up and running in this country. But it seems to be the only reason anything gets done around here, so if I were the minister for children, I’d be bringing any proposals straight to my real bosses at the troika.



  1. I can’t help but think much of spin of this story as being deliberate anti women is misleading. Look at the Sunday Business Post which had this at the weekend

    “Working mothers seeking deals with their banks over debt could be told to give up their jobs, under new proposals to be outlined shortly.

    Parents who are looking to write off mortgage debt could be told that one of them will have to stay at home if their income does not cover the costs of childcare. They will also have to provide proof in the form of receipts or bank statements if their childcare costs appear “excessive”.”


    What do you notice? The article leads with an assertion in the first paragraph that working mothers will be told to give up their jobs when the guidelines make no such requirement as can be the seen by the second paragraph which refers to parents. Keeping in mind that we’re talking about people in such dire situation that any amount of deferred payments or rescheduling isn’t going to help and instead they are going for insolvency, it hardly makes sense in that situation that they would continue to do something that is only increasing their debt burden week in/week out. In truth the only people who are feasibly working on a medium to long term basis with a take home income less than their childcare costs are in double income situation, it’s possible that a small minority of those in the childcare costs greater than income bracket are single parents or single income families might temporarily be doing that but if so they can make a reasonable case for deferral of payments because they have some justifiable expectation that their income situation will improve in the medium to long term. Otherwise if someone is on a single income and their childcare exceeds what their overall pay package then going out to work is madness.

    So to the majority of people, those with two incomes who are asking for debt write offs or as it would be more bluntly termed “getting other people to pay their debts – (the debt doesn’t disappear in a write off, someone is left out of pocket and if it’s the nationalised banks doing the write down then that’s you and me as tax payers footing the bill). If they are so stuck that they need to have debt forgiven that perhaps we should look at the amount of debt and what efforts they have made to manage their finances. If they were in a hole and kept making it bigger with a monthly deficit of a few hundred euros due to childcare being in excess of income then I’m not so sure that they’re really going to get out of debt given that they will be creating new debt month after month as their costs for childcare continue to be higher than their combined income. This is more let us weep for the middle class who have two incomes when many working class people have no jobs at all.

    By all means we should have more affordable and accessible childcare and any measures in this area should be gender blind in their effect (the lower income parent should be the one to stay home) but spare us the spin that this is a deliberate act of sexism. If the government introduced some measure focused on the over 80s I guess that would be sexism too because women live longer.

    • My point isn’t that this is “a deliberate act of sexism” at all – to be honest I believe Leo Varadkar answered the question he was asked. The mother often is the one earning less, because of part time work and because of time taken for maternity leave, and he was calling it from that point of view – which, if there was adequate childcare, would not be a valid point of view.

      What he failed to reason was that childcare is a joint responsibility in a two parent household. Putting it up against one parent’s income may be mathematically sound in the short-term.

      If both parents are earning and contributing to childcare that costs substantially less than their joint income, that’s not grounds to make one of them give up work.

      If you take the woman (or indeed the man) out of the workplace for that short term gain you’re preventing them earning more in the future – and removing their ability to be able to pay back those debts long-term.

      There are a lot of households where that conversation is had and the woman giving up work is the solution. If that’s a choice, fine. But it’s not up to the banks to decide to ruin a woman (or a man)’s future earning prospects for the sake of a short-term income based on a flawed model.

      I don’t for a minute think there are many single parent families out there at all where the parent is working for less than the cost of their childcare, because the sums just don’t add up, and that wouldn’t be sustainable even in the short-term for most people.

      What I was saying is that the childcare issue is the root of a whole series of problems affecting people in all different walks of life, and that this situation should have highlighted that – rather than producing soundbytes about women working, or than allowing a sexist model, which is out of date, to pervade the thinking. Which is most certainly does in large swathes of society, and of Fine Gael.

      Our childcare is the most expensive in Europe and that creates this false impression of women’s work being a luxury, where the economic, and impliedly socially acceptable thing to do, is to stay at home or if not stay at home, to give up any chances at promotion by taking a lot of time out or working part time.

  2. Isn’t the point here that we’re talking specifically about people applying for insolvency, I would tend to agree with the more general points around access to childcare. And in the circumstance of a couple applying for insolvency then the issue of childcare costs as compared to the joint income is a area to be looked at.

    Our childcare is expensive as you say but why? Is it because it isn’t subsidised (which might be because far more of us have children and there isn’t the same ratio of people available to do the subsidising, or because we’re less willing to give more money to the state for it to dole it out) or are there other factors at play? Do we pay those working in the sector more or could it be the case that much of the childcare charges are driven by the need to pay off the construction of childcare facilities that didn’t previously exist and which were built in a boom? Or is there excessive profiteering in childcare?

    All those are interesting questions that would go some way to establishing what the reality of childcare is in Ireland but none of those were aired instead it was “oh look at the government oppression mothers, they hate women don’t you know.” which plays well with a certain sector of the population and plays off an stereotype (which isn’t entirely unearned by some elements) of every member of Fine Gael and some reps such as Leo and Lucinda as all being throw backs to the 1950s which is enjoyable for those complaining on twitter but doesn’t do much to either highlight or solve the actual problem of access to or cost of childcare. Even your piece above talks more about what Leo should do that what we as a society should be doing.

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